“Still Working” is Common Ground’s series of oral histories of working people and the labor movement in Rhode Island. This month we present the second half of a two part interview with Paul MacDonald, President of the Providence Central Federated Council and Legislative Director of Teamsters Local 251. This entry focuses on Paul’s work at the Gorham Manufacturing Company, formerly on Adelaide Avenue in the Elmwood neighborhood of Providence. Gorham Silver was founded in 1831, with the Adelaide Avenue factory established in 1890. Gorham produced globally acclaimed silverware and cast bronze statuary and grave markers in Providence. Paul and I also discussed Gorham’s relationship to neighborhood issues, such as the arrival of Southeast Asian immigrants starting in the 1970’s and pollution in Mashapaug Pond.
The interview has been lightly edited for length, sequence and clarity.
Starting at Gorham
Paul MacDonald: I went to work for the Gorham Company (in the mid-1960’s), and that's where I really established my labor career. They were represented at that time by the Jewelry Workers Union, which is a now-defunct union, but in those days it was a small union.
I'll never forget, I went to work, I was so happy, "Oh, boy, look at this, I'm going to work at the Gorham Company, look at the pay, things are looking up." I kid you not, the first day I went to work they went on strike. They had a wildcat strike. A guy named Joe Mulvey emptied the plant out at noon time. My first day on the job I go over to a place called The Four D's to get a sandwich and a beer with one of the guys I knew from the Connecticut Bar. We downed a couple of beers, ate a sandwich, we run back, and there are people out in front of the gate.
Of course we got the news right away. "Joe Mulvey got pissed off at the personnel guys and dumped the plant out. Everybody's out in the street." I said "Oh Jesus, mother of God, I ain't got a leg to stand on." But, I was smart enough, I didn't go in. I stood with them on the picket line, and we stayed out two days before getting back to work. The guys that I worked with, they liked that. I was serving a probationary period. The company could have dumped me in a minute, with nowhere to go. I didn't go through the picket line, I never have, never will.
Maybe a year or two later they had an election for the offices of the executive board, and my life-long friend Don Milner wanted to run, so I was like his campaign manager. He ran for the executive board. Unfortunately he lost. I didn't think he was much of a campaigner, even though he was my buddy. He'd probably kick me in the ass to hear me say that today, but he was my pal. We lost.
A little sidebar story to that: We had two main entrances to the plant. We had 1200 people working that plant. It was not a small plant at all. I got an old bed sheet, and I put it on the dining room floor in my house, and I got some red paint, and I wrote "Vote Donald E. Milner, Executive Board” and left it there until the morning. I get up at 4 AM to hang it on the gate, I pick it up off the floor and on the floor it says "Vote Donald E. Milner..." The paint had soaked through overnight. We lost the campaign and I had to scrub the floor with a brillo pad. My wife was like "What the...?"
A couple of years go by and the election comes again, I say "Donald, we're gonna run again, but you and I will run together as a team." I had one leg up on anyone in there politically. I was in the maintenance shop. The whole plant was mine. And we won. Both of us, we won together, we won big. We still didn't have control of the local, but we were members of the executive board.
A few years go by and I get elected recording secretary, and I get elected vice president, and then a good union guy, Jimmy Lennon, the president of the local, he went to the international. One day I woke up and was the president of the union. I couldn't believe it. I never dreamed I would be president of the union. After that, people liked me, we got along good. I never backed down. I stood my ground on everything, and I supported my union the best I could. I spent a long time there as president of the local. Never lost an election.
Gorham Company finally got caught up with (pollution in) Mashapaug Pond. I did it myself, when I worked in the machine shop, we'd get pretty dirty there, it was a lot of dirty work. We used to clean the parts of the equipment that we had to repair, because they used a lot of grease, a lot of oil, so you'd have to clean them up. We used carbon tetrachloride in these big tubs. You'd immerse the parts, you'd use a brush to get the gunk off so you could get a look at what was necessary to repair them. They used 55 gallon drums of that stuff. When we got done, the loading dock at the machine shop was at the back of the plant at the foot of Mashapaug Pond. We got rid of it, went down the hill, into the pond, that was the end of it. We did that for years. We didn't know, nobody really understood pollution in those days. People didn't think about it.
Then the environment people started to catch up with Gorham/Textron, and we had to get a boat, a big rowboat. We used to call it the Gorham navy. We'd be out there patrolling, trying to do something to clean up what they'd been doing for years, dumping trash, you name it, we threw it out of there. That plant was there from the 1800's, and then they went through World War I, World War II, that place was booming. They made a lot of arms, casings for the shells, stuff like that. I'm amazed they could reclaim any of that land.
Arrival of the Southeast Asian community
When the Southeast Asians arrived here (in the 1970’s), Gorham took a lot of them, because they were workers. But they didn't speak English. I had a guy who spoke English from their community. The members who were already at the plant were getting pissed off with the new people coming in, the Southeast Asians, because they were working like dogs and my guys knew the structure; they knew what the quotas were. They were on piece work. The Southeast Asians were blowing them away, they were working so hard. The foremen had the new workers scared. They wouldn't say anything. They were enjoying the benefits of being Steelworkers, holiday pay, things like that.
One day a guy came to me and said "Do you know what the foreman is saying to them? He tells them, 'Enjoy the holiday, I'm glad to give it to you.'" The foreman's telling the Southeast Asians he's giving them the holiday. So I get up there, stop the whole operation, the phone was going nuts. I said "Stop, everything stop!" I'm standing there trying to communicate to people who haven't got a clue what I'm saying. I grabbed them and said "Holiday." They knew that word. "Yeah, yeah. Holiday." "I'm giving you the holiday, not that guy!" They became pretty good members once they understood the structure."
Cianci calls me one day and says "Paul I know you got a lot of those Southeast Asian guys down at the Gorham Company, you gotta help me out." I say "What's the matter?" He says "They're killing all the ducks in the park!" I say, "What?" He says, "I'm not kidding you. We didn't even notice it coming, but somebody reported finally that the ducks are disappearing at an alarming rate." So yeah, I know those folks.
Years of decline at Gorham
We never recovered after the strike of 1975. It was a long strike. A seven and a half month strike. We didn't lose everything because of the strike, but we lost because the technology was changing, the competition from Asia, Japan and Korea. And also young people getting married: in my day, not that long ago, when you got married, you had to have a set of silver. That was part of the whole wedding package. That started to change, young people didn't get so excited about silver anymore. The stainless steel came in, but the real money was made with the silver (at Gorham).
The thing that really kicked us in the ass was the competition from third world countries and Asia. They were making those Paul Revere bowls that we made that we were so proud of. They were knocking them off like damn gum drops. You can't compete with that. The company started to try to import the raw flatware, and we'll finish it here. It started to shrink.
One of the things that brought it to a head is when the membership doesn't want to listen to you. That's a real wake up. They're not listening to you only because they're selfish in some instances. We had a foundry there, a bronze foundry. It was a big foundry. We produced grave markers, caskets, statuary.
Another guy I got along with even though we battled was a the President of the Gorham Company named Frank Grzelecki. I had a strike at one of his plants that caused a lot of problems for him and me both. I actually settled a strike with him on a bar up on route 44 because we didn't want to meet anywhere near Rhode Island. It was just him and me, and a couple beers and bullshitting each other. He knew what I wanted, and it worked out. It was a good settlement for us.
He comes to me later on and says "Paul, we want to make an investment in the foundry." That's good news. I like that because they're making an investment that secures our jobs. Silver and stainless steel and flatware are ok, we're still alive, but it’s not going that well. So I said "What do you want to do?" He said we're willing to make, at that time I think it was a couple million dollar investment, which was a humongous amount of money, revamping and gearing up the foundry, but he wanted at least another four (grave) markers a day from the crew to make this begin to pay back. They wanted an increase on the production.
I love my friends and my members, the guys in the foundry were great supporters of mine, but I knew how they operated. They'd start in the morning, and their day would end at 3:30, but to tell you the truth they were pretty much done at 1:30, hanging around. I knew they could do it. That was another big mistake, when I brought it to them to do it, because I had agreed that we would try to do it. They turned me down flat. "F--- you, what the f---." I said "You guys don't look at the big picture here. They're gonna invest all this money, new equipment." They don't run away that easy when you make those kind of investments. You can't just pick up everything and go down to New Jersey or Florida or wherever. The members didn't like it. They did not like it at all.
They still liked me. I know they liked me because they re-elected me, we had another election after that. I even decked one of their guys, but that's another story. One of the guys in the foundry gave me a lot of bull. One thing led to another, and I did it, I whacked him right on his ass in the foundry. My buddy Don said "Oh, Paul, you did it now, you'll never get elected." The guys were cheering me. They didn't like him either. So I got re-elected again. War stories, that's all I'm telling you now.
When you start punching people, you can't do that, you shouldn't. Unfortunately, I was losing it. I left there. I enjoyed my time there but it wasn't really where I wanted to be. I’m fighting with the company, fighting with the membership sometimes, fighting with the international. I was at a point in my life where I had Rolaids coming out of my pants. My stomach was like "Bumb, bumb, bumb, bumb..."
So they had what they called the AFL-CIO/United Way Community Services program. One of the guys retired, there were two guys who ran the program. Both union. It is a union program, a partnership with the United Way. I had been involved with United Way in support of it, campaigns, get the people to donate... I went to Eddie McElroy, I said "I think it's time for me to make a move." I told him how I felt. "It is not a problem, Paul. You'll get my support." So he made it happen, Eddie McElroy got me the position, and I ended up leaving the Steelworkers.